Robert Merton: Anomie Theory (sometimes also termed strain theory or means-ends theory)

In one of the most famous articles in sociology, its first version written in the 1940s, Robert Merton begins by addressing biological explanations of deviance and concludes that biology cannot account for variations from one society to the next in the nature and extent of deviance. His primary interest is not so much why a particular individual deviates, but why the rates of deviance differ so dramatically in different societies and for different subgroups within a single society. Merton works within the overall functionalist perspective that we have already addressed, which puts a great deal of emphasis on the role of culture, particularly its unifying aspects, but now Merton adapts a concept he borrows from Durkheim to analyze situations in which culture creates deviance and disunity. In Durkheim's usage, anomie referred to a situation in which cultural norms break down because of rapid change. Anomic suicide, for example, can occur during a major economic depression, when people aren't able to achieve the goals that they have learned to pursue, but it can also occur when the economy experiences a boom and suddenly the sky's the limit--people don't know how to limit their goals and be satisfied with their achievements.

Merton changes the concept slightly, to refer to a situation in which there is an apparent lack of fit between the culture's norms about what constitutes success in life (goals) and the culture's norms about the appropriate ways to achieve those goals (means).

In Merton's formulation, anomie becomes the explanation for high rates of deviant behavior in the U.S. compared with other societies, and also an explanation for the distribution of deviant behavior across groups defined by class, race, ethnicity, and the like. The U.S., in fact, Merton sees as a polar example of a society in which success goals (often defined primarily in monetary terms) are emphasized for everyone in the culture, and people are criticized as being quitters if they scale back their goals. On the other hand, the culture is at best ambivalent in its norms about the apporpriate means of being sucessful. Certainly hard work and ambition, in school and then in the economic marketplace, are the culturally approved means of success, but there's also an element of admiration for the robber baron and the rogue who breaks the rules about appropriate means but achieves success goals by deviant means. In America, in other words, success is probably rated a lot more highly than virtue.

In addition, the U.S. has minority groups whose access to success by conventional means is clearly limited. In the period in which Merton was writing, ours was a clearly racist society. Black Americans, for example, were severely limited in their access to education, but if they overcame those obstacles and obtained a good education, that education would not "buy" them as good a job as it would for a white person. In some societies that emphasize ascriptive criteria in allocating power and privilege, the culture sets a very different standard of success. Someone who was born an untouchable in the Indian caste system, for example, would learn not to aspire to the kind of success that might be available to an upper-caste individual. But in the U.S. the same kinds of success goals are held out to all. Thus our very high rates of deviance and crime, compared with other societies, in Merton's analysis can be understood, first as a result of our emphasizing success goals more than we emphasize approved means of achieving those goals, and second, our emphasizing the same kind of success for everyone even while the race, ethnic, and class stratification of the society limits the opportunities for success by those in the less privileged groups.

How do people respond to this disjunction of goals and means? Merton creates a typology of adaptations. The first symbol designates people's relationship to norms about goals; the second symbol designates their relationship to norms about the means of achieving those goals.

Mode of adaptation

I. Conformity + +

II. Innovation + -

III. Ritualism - +

IV. Retreatism - -

V. Rebellion xx

In this diagram, a "+" means acceptance, a "-" signifies rejection, and an "x" means rejection of prevailing values and substitution of new ones.

Although Merton spends some time discussing each of these modes of adaptation, it's probably the second one, "innovation," which most logically follows from his earlier discussion of the relationship between culture and deviance in general and the deviance-producing features of American society in particular. Innovators are people who break the rules (and often the laws) in order to achieve the success goals that are so heavily promoted in the society. At the upper levels, Merton points out, "the pressure toward innovation not infrequently erases the distinction between business-like strivings this side of the approved norms and sharp practices beyond the norms." Merton quotes Thorstein Veblen: "It is not easy in any given case--indeed it is at times impossible until the courts have spoken--to say whether it is an instance of praiseworthy salesmanship or a penitentiary offense."

But he sees the greatest pressures toward "innovation" operating at the lower levels of the stratification system." Here "incentives for success are provided by the established values of the culture and second, the avenues available for moving toward this goal are largely limited by the class structure to those of deviant behavior. It is the combination of the cultural emhasis and the social structure which produces intense pressure for deviation." "Despite our persisting open-class ideology, advance toward the success-goal is relatively rare and notably difficult for those armed with little formal education and few economic resources." "Within this context, Al Capone represents the triumph of amoral intelligence over morally prescribed "failure," when the channels of vertical mobility are closed or narrowed in a society which places a high premium on economic affluence and social ascent for all its members."

Notice that Merton's analysis is not ultimately aimed at the individual level--why does this individual deviate and this one not--but at the level of groups and societies as reflected in differing rates of deviance. Merton isn't saying that every individual exposed to these cultural conflicts reacts the same way; on the contrary, his typology is designed to allow for variation at the individual level. In his concluding remarks, Merton himself highlights the major weaknesses of his analysis. " This essay on the structural sources of deviant behavior remains but a prelude. It has not included a detailed treatment of the structural elements which predispose toward one rather than another of the alternative responses open to individuals living in an ill-balanced social structure. It has largely neglected but not denied the social psychological processes determihng the specific incidence of these responses; it has only briefly considered the social functions performed by deviant behavior; ...it has only touched upon rebellious behavior which seeks to refashion the social framework." Unfortunately, as is so often the case with people doing what they label as preliminary or exploratory work, Merton never went on to attempt the additional work that he himself recognized as crucial to a full understanding of the dynamic he describes in this essay.